Saturday, June 02, 2007

City (Waukegan in suburban Chicago) refuses to pay for the disgraceful misdeeds of its police

They used extremely prejudicial identification procedures -- so the guilty are still free

A "standby letter of credit" has been posted with the U.S. District Court as the city appeals a $9 million judgment in the wrongful conviction lawsuit of Alejandro Dominguez. Dominguez was convicted of rape in 1990 when he was 16 years old. After spending four years in prison, DNA testing showed his DNA did not match DNA from the crime scene. In 2002, he was pardoned by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

During a two-week trial last October, the plaintiff charged former Waukegan Police Lt. Paul Hendley with causing the rape victim to falsely identify Dominguez. The case was tried in U.S. District Court in Chicago. On Oct. 17, 2006, the jury awarded Dominguez $9 million in damages in his civil rights lawsuit, a verdict the city is appealing.

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The last time life seemed normal was 17 years ago. It was a Thursday. In the span of minutes one September night in 1989, a Waukegan woman identified Alejandro Dominguez, then 16, as the man who beat and raped her. Through 12 hours of police interrogation, a 4-year prison sentence and another 8 years branded a sex offender, through a month in immigration limbo during which he was nearly deported, Dominguez held fast that police had the wrong guy and, worse, had trampled on his rights.

Last month, a federal jury in Chicago agreed. On Oct. 17, four years after his rape conviction was vacated on the basis of DNA evidence, Dominguez, 33, was awarded $9 million in the lawsuit he filed against the City of Waukegan and a retired police lieutenant. If the money reaches him--the city has said it intends to appeal the verdict--it will no doubt ease the financial toll Dominguez's long, tortuous road has exacted on his family. But he would gladly trade the money for all he has lost.

'For me it's like you're invited to a party and there's a big table full with a lot of food,' Dominguez said recently in his Waukegan apartment. 'Everybody's drinking and everybody's eating and everybody's enjoying, and every time I get close to the table ... there's none for me.'

Dominguez was born in Tonatico, a town about 55 miles southwest of Mexico City. He moved with family members to the United States in 1988. By his own estimation, he was a normal teenager who loved to play soccer and go to movies. His family lived in a large apartment complex on Dugdale Road that was filled predominantly with Mexican tenants. He went to school and was gradually learning English.

About noon on Sept. 19, 1989, an 18-year-old woman who lived in an apartment a floor above his was preparing to take a shower when three youths entered the apartment. One shoved her to the floor, punched her and sexually assaulted her. Two days later, the guard at the apartment building said he wanted to see Dominguez in the security office. Paul Hendley, the Waukegan police detective named in the suit, was there when he arrived. Unknown to Dominguez, another detective brought the victim to a window looking into the office and told her to 'watch the one sitting on the chair. Tell me if that is the one that hit you.' The victim identified Dominguez as her attacker.

Despite his denials, Dominguez was charged with rape, though he never wore a stud earring, as the victim said her attacker wore, and he couldn't speak much English, as that man did.

The judge convicted him on Feb. 28, 1990, of home invasion and aggravated criminal sexual assault on the woman's identification and testimony by a crime-lab analyst that Dominguez could have been the source of semen found on the victim's underwear. He was sentenced to 9 years in prison.

Incarceration forced him to grow up quickly. On one of his first days at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, an older teen approached Dominguez, flashing gang signs and asking what gang he belonged to. When Dominguez told him he had no affiliation, the older youth, named Santos, gave him a piece of advice. 'You need to change your whole attitude because you know what they do to people who come in here for rape?' Santos warned him. 'Don't show feelings. If someone comes up and tries to do something, tries to take something from you, you have to fight.'

A second chance When he was released from the Illinois Youth Center in Joliet in December 1994 for good behavior, Dominguez thought he had a second chance. He had learned English and received a high school diploma. But when he went to a local college admissions office, he was told his conviction disqualified him for financial aid. Moreover, he had no legal status, having missed a chance for a green card in 1992, when his family gained residency. He found a minimum-wage factory job in Lincolnshire but not before several other employers rejected him because of his conviction, he said.

In the meantime he went about proving his innocence. Dominguez went to several lawyers, who he says charged a retainer fee only to tell him later that they would not take his case. One took $7,000 to research his conviction and did virtually nothing for two years, he said. From 1994 to 1997, Dominguez said, he went about 15 times to Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city across the border from El Paso, Texas, to apply for a green card. For each trip he spent about $2,000 in travel and fees. Each trip was unsuccessful.

In 2001 immigration officials arrested Dominguez, detained him for a month and threatened to deport him. He pleaded for a chance to stay in the country and prove his innocence. A judge granted his wish and released him on bail. After his release, he hired another lawyer, and this time his push for innocence gained traction. In April 2002, after new testing showed that the DNA on the victim's underwear could not be Dominguez's, a judge vacated the convictions.

Two years later, he sued Waukegan and Hendley for false arrest and malicious prosecution. Central to Dominguez's argument was that the identification in the security office was unfairly suggestive of his guilt, said Mark Loevy-Reyes, one of Dominguez's attorneys.

Though lineups with several possible suspects are preferred, 'show-ups' can pass legal muster if they are done within about 90 minutes of an incident, when 'the freshness of the witness' memory overwhelms the suggestiveness,' said Gary Wells, a psychologist at Iowa State University and an expert on eyewitness identification who testified in the civil trial. In Dominguez's case, the victim testified that Hendley said the attacker was in custody, and all she had to do was identify him. Also, the show-up occurred two days after the attack and served not to test the victim's memory so much as place Dominguez's face in her mind as the attacker, Wells said. 'It sent him down a path to prison,' Wells said.

Loevy-Reyes said $1 million per year of incarceration is appropriate in wrongful-conviction awards. But in Dominguez's case, more money was warranted, he said. 'His difficulties didn't end after four years,' Loevy-Reyes said. 'He's suffered ever since then.' One year, Dominguez was jailed after being late in registering as a sex offender and sentenced to 2 years of probation, during which he had to attend therapy sessions with admitted abusers and rapists, he said.

Then there were his 8-year-old son's Scout leaders, who would not let Dominguez go on fishing trips with the boys because of his criminal record. After his name was cleared, he again volunteered to help, he said. They have not called him.

The city maintains its officers did not violate Dominguez's rights but declined to comment on the specifics of the suit because it intends to appeal.

What could have been: After all these years, a weariness, not anger, is heard in Dominguez's quiet, deliberate voice. 'I feel like an old man,' he said. 'Seventeen years, that's too many battles.' When he hears others talk about all they accomplished in those years, Dominguez wonders what he could have become in that time.

After years of holding industrial jobs, he took a job three years ago with the immigration rights group Centro Sin Fronteras, where he helps guide new arrivals through the legal hoops of residency and citizenship. With time, he, too, hopes to become a U.S. citizen. He has dreams of attending college, maybe even law school. But for now, he is happy enough just living in peace with his wife, son and 4-year-old daughter, and having a daily routine determined by him--not a prison guard, immigration official or probation officer. After the last 17 years, a normal life will do just fine.

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(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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